Remember when Apple Watch was a luxury item? We look back at its 5-year evolution

Apple Watch Anniversary 0497

The Apple Watch has evolved from its first version five years ago.

Angela Lang / CNET

A $ 17,000 model. A suitable appointment. A cover at Vogue. The Apple Watch was more than a fitness tracking device when it launched five years ago. It was a fashion item and status symbol. It was luxury on your wrist.

Fast forward to 2020, the fifth anniversary of Apple’s smartwatch. Millions of people around the world wear Apple Watches to remind them to stand during a meeting, take time to breathe, and do one last workout for the day. The Apple Watch was once a fashion accessory and is now an indispensable tool for health and fitness.

The ubiquity of the Apple Watch doesn’t mean that it has lost its appeal to the fashion-conscious. Apple Watch last year the entire Swiss watch industry oversold according to strategy analytics by a large margin. Apple delivered an estimated 31 million units in 2019, while all Swiss watch brands together made up 21 million deliveries, the research company said. (Apple doesn’t report how many watches it sells per year, but it does report sales of $ 24.5 billion in the last financial year from its category, which includes the Apple Watch and AirPods. That was a jump of 41% compared to the 2018 financial year.)

“Swiss companies like Swatch are losing the smartwatch wars,” said Strategy Analytics.

You are not alone. When the Apple Watch hit the market five years ago, all major technology companies and many new startups seemed to be building a watch or fitness band. The list included Samsung, Sony, Fitbit, Pebble, Misfit, Jawbone and various other companies. Some of them, like Samsung, are still selling smartwatches, while others, like Pebble, have been acquired or have closed down. And the Swiss watch brands, some of which are trying to go digital, are fighting for competition.

“The window for Swiss watch brands to influence smartwatches is closing,” said analyst Steven Waltzer. “Swatch, Tissot, TAG Heuer and others may be running out of time.”

For Apple, the watch has become one of the most successful products, although the business is nowhere near as big as the hugely popular iPhone. For the Apple Watch, the Apple smartphone must still be run, which has only limited functions. And it has more to do when it comes to becoming an independent health tracker. Nevertheless, Apple managed to do what seemed almost impossible five years ago: to find another successful product.


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High stakes

Given Apple’s huge position in smartwatch sales, it’s easy to forget how it all started. When the company launched the first Apple Watch in September 2014, success was not guaranteed. The device wouldn’t reach consumers’ wrists for seven months that gave nimble rival time to answer. It wasn’t clear why someone actually needed a smartwatch or What Would a Smartwatch Do? Once people had one.

For Apple CEO Tim Cook that is Apple Watch was a great test. He had to show that without Steve Jobs at the top, his company could still make fun, indispensable products in new categories. Apple’s last all-new hit was the 2010 iPad, launched by Jobs before he died the following year.

When the first Apple Watch was launched, Cook called it a “breakthrough” product and described it as a “comprehensive” health and fitness device, walkie-talkie, and remote control for the Apple TV streaming box.

The device is “the most personal device we have ever created,” he said at the time. “Because you wear it, we invented new, intimate ways to connect and communicate directly from your wrist.”

The first model came with multiple strap options, two watch sizes – 42mm or 38mm – and three designs: the aluminum case Apple Watch Sport, the Apple Watch with a stainless steel case and the 18-carat gold case Apple Watch Edition. The aluminum was available in silver or space gray, while the stainless steel was available in the same color or in a space black version. The gold watch was available in 18-carat yellow gold or 18-carat rose gold.

The entry-level device, the Apple Watch Sport made of aluminum and glass with a plastic strap, started at $ 349. The Premium Gold Apple Watch Edition started at $ 10,000 and rose to $ 17,000.

To sell the very personal device, Apple approached Burberry’s former CEO Angela Ahrendts. In April 2014, she joined the company as Head of Retail and quickly got to work to change the store experience. When it came to the Apple Watch, she took advantage of her time as the head of a luxury fashion brand.

In the beginning, you couldn’t go to a store and buy an Apple Watch like you would on an iPhone or iPad. Future buyers of Apple Watch had to make appointments to see the gadget in Apple Stores during the pre-order period, and the sale was through a reservation system.

It immediately became a hit. Some analysts estimated that it was over 2 million Apple Watches pre-ordered in the two weeks before the device’s debut on April 24. According to Strategy Analytics, all other smartwatch providers only delivered a total of 4.6 million devices in 2014.

Today, you can go to an Apple store and try on any model you want, and you don’t have to buy a watch with an Apple-selected band. In September, Apple launched a new head of retail, Apple Watch Studio Experience, which allows you to combine watches and straps to your own taste. It works both in the store as well on-line.

With the 2018 Apple Watch Series 4, Apple resized its watch to make the screen bigger but the whole device thinner. The current Apple Watch sizes are 40 mm and 44 mm.

It didn’t take long for Apple to give up its luxurious Apple Watch range. The $ 17,000 model was taken away by the second generation.

Last year, Apple brought back its Apple Watch Edition, but the fifth-generation device is made of titanium or ceramic, not 18-carat gold. For the 44mm white ceramic version with the Space Black Link bracelet, the price is $ 1,749. A Herm├Ęs edition costs $ 1,499. The new Apple Watch Series 5, with the display always on, starts at $ 399. However, you can buy the older Apple Watch Series 3 for just $ 199.

The Apple Watch “has changed from luxury to something very useful,” said Carolina Milanesi, a creative strategy analyst.

Not quite a full computer

When the Apple Watch first came out, it was seen as a mini phone on your wrist. It started with 3,000 apps (more than the 1,000 Apple originally expected) that ranged from fitness tracking to messaging to trivia. An accompanying iPhone was required for operation. At that point, the App Store analytics company AppFigures believed that the Apple Watch Store would grow to around 100,000 apps within the following year.

The reality is not even close.

Today there are approximately 20,000 apps that work on the Apple Watch. Most of them need an iPhone for full functionality, which serves as an extension of the popular Apple smartphone. In comparison, the app store for the 13-year-old iPhone has around 2 million apps.

Companies like Google, Amazon, eBay, Google, Target, and TripAdvisor discontinued support for the Apple Watch apps a few years after the launch, and initially nobody noticed that they were gone.

Apple itself has created 22 apps for its watch, and according to analysts, these are the most common elements on the Apple Watch. That goes back to what people use the watch for – checking the weather, tracking fitness, and reading quick notifications like messages. All of these features come from apps created by Apple, so many features do not require third-party apps.

“There was nothing like an iOS app ecosystem for the watch,” said Bob O’Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research. “For the most part, you’re going to use all the Apple stuff and a thing or two and that’s about it.”

These one or two things are usually messaging, fitness, or music. According to App Annie, a provider of mobile insights and analytics, Facebook Messenger, DingTalk and Spotify are the most downloaded third-party mobile apps with Apple Watch functionality worldwide.

Health and fitness boost

Fitness and health have been part of the Apple Watch from the start, thanks to its popular activity tracking and workout apps. But instead of one of many functions, they are now often the focus. Today, the newer Apple Watches can track your swimming movements and your menstrual cycle and tell you if the noise around you could damage your hearing. They are approved by the United States Federal Drug Administration to perform electrocardiograms, also known as EKGs or EKGs, to detect abnormal heartbeats.

Apple is working with organizations on several research studies to help you share your Apple Watch and iPhone data to improve health. In 2018, the company partnered with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen pharmaceutical brand to improve heart health in people 65 years and older. It has now expanded research hearing, women’s health, and the correlation between physical activity and heart health.

In 2017, Apple also launched a cellular version of the Apple Watch that allows people to make calls or access the Internet while they are away from their phones, for example. This is particularly popular with users who run without a phone.

And last year, an app store that lives on the watch itself was finally launched, instead of an iPhone having to download iOS apps that are compatible with the Apple Watch. This way, users can watch how they install third-party apps right from their wrists. Some developers have now developed Apple Watch apps like the game TubeSnake.

Building on health and fitness – and independence from the iPhone – are great opportunities for future versions of the Apple Watch. Apple still hasn’t moved away from the device as a companion to the iPhone. It doesn’t work with iPads or Apple Touch devices and is therefore only available for iPhone owners. By developing a more independent Apple Watch, Apple would immediately expand the user base, even for children, if the rumored children’s edition is available.

Adding more sensors, including the holy grail of glucose and blood pressure monitors, would make the Apple Watch a full-fledged health tracker. And then there is sleep tracking, which has been rumored for years but never came about, probably due to the impact on battery life.

Five years ago, the Apple Watch was introduced as an extension of the iPhone. In five years it may be hard for us to remember that they were ever connected.

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